I have no middle name because mom never gave me one. She was in love with a heart throb singer by the name of Ricky Nelson. Initially she thought Ricky Nelson Soto would make a great American name, but then thought her husband might not approve, so eventually Nelson was taken away from Ricky, and Ricky was stretched into Richard so no evidence would remain of her teenage affection for an American Bandstand Idol. Mom still gets a laugh out of this story, and she has a nice laugh.
Born in the Caribbean on the tiny Island of Puerto Rico, the place of my birth sits on the shores of the Caribbean. I am the youngest of two and sort of four—let’s just say it’s complicated—and I loved my younger days roaming endlessly with abuelo Pedro on the island.
I am the product of Catholic schools, the LAX South Bay communities, and 70’s race riots. An avid lover of sports, unlike their Hawaiian brothers, Puerto Ricans didn’t surf back in the day, so I took to any ball field I could find. Dad could throw any pitch and some of my favorite memories are of my gorgeous mother, all dressed up in her Sunday best, making a family lunch and driving our small Toyota Corolla right onto LAX tarmac so the boys could have lunch with their dad. In the hangar, under the wing of an old DC 10, I loved playing catch with dad and the rest of the airport staff.
I wasn’t an easy kid to raise in some respects—-seriously strong willed as a child, a voracious reader, an argumentative talker, and a highly energetic pain— something Mom let me know, and if we were cooking in her kitchen and chatting with her, she likely would let us know I haven’t apologized for those things. But she loves me anyway.
Adventure constantly held my imagination, my thoughts were endless in that regard and often led to immediate and thoughtless action. After seeing 70’s icon Evel Kneviel on TV, I built my own parachute and jumped off the roof of the garage. It worked and led to dad actually calling a life insurance agent, that’s partially true. Another time I knocked myself out cold trying to jump over a series of metal trash cans, I wanted to land across the street and was sure I could do it. Let’s just say I didn’t land across the street. Sometime later some boys found me passed out inside a metal trash can and took me home. Most of this story is true, and those kids are still my friends.
For a few years the Hollywood Park Racetrack and the Fabulous Forum were just down the street from my house. When I felt brave, I took my speedy Schwinn bike with handle bar streamers, and pumped away looking both ways as I crossed Century Blvd. I pressed hard into my Chuck Taylor’s and love biking through Hollywood Park, the place was amazing, it was another world, green, gorgeous, and the workers were awesome. I enjoyed chatting them up and they were nice enough to let me cruise around on my mighty gold Schwinn bike. It was a kid’s dream.
At the end of a long private road came the entrance to the Forum, where suddenly I found himself at the players entrance. Gracefully walking towards me 7 foot icon, dressed in a fine blue jean denim suit and disco black hat, I sat speechless on my bike as Wilt Chamberlain gave me 5. I have never seen anyone bleed cool like that man. He gently messed up my hair and chuckled was he walked inside. For the first time in my life I was speechless. Next up among the parade of walking trees was the NBA logo himself, Hall of Famer Jerry West. Mr. West asked him my name, and I couldn’t say anything. With all the excitement I lost track of time, was late for dinner and got in trouble for it, and to this day mom doesn’t believes this story.
Dad wandered a bit professionally before finding his groove. Ten years of military service and time in Korea only landed him a job parking cars for Exec’s at Dodger Stadium. When needed dad found himself chucking dogs to the faithful above the third base line. My parents swear some of their happiest memories were during those early days with mom holding onto two young toddlers as the Dodgers chased another pennant.
After becoming an electrician, then a dental lab tech, dad found stable work at LAX with Western Airlines. The consistent pay led to the purchase of small starter homes in Whittier and then Inglewood. The middle-class city sat right on the edge of ground zero for the looming race riots. Black anger quickly intensified and due to red lining, among other offenses, was entirely justified. Southern Cal didn’t have the twisted racial history of the south, but it nonetheless engaged in forms of racial prejudice that I saw with my own eyes. Red lining is such example, everything inside the red line gets a bank loan, and everything outside the line does not. It meant blacks weren’t allowed to get loans inside the red line. As a result, blacks couldn’t buy homes and advance along with their white neighbors. Much of this led to a series of racial tensions in Watts and other surrounding areas, eventually spilling into Inglewood. One day I came home and saw the entire neighborhood up for sale, sign was placed on every front lawn. The reason still breaks my heart to this day, a young black family moved in and all the whites decided to move out. Sadly, none of this is embellished.
Due to urban violence and rioting, my family moved around a good bit, and I switched schools every three years.
After years as an altar boy, and countless hours saying mass, a Catholic priest finally taught the truth of the gospel. A girl in class asked the priest what is the difference between Catholics and Christians, so the priest went to the chalk board and started to draw.
Here is what the priest drew and said, “A Christian believes he can go straight to God only through Jesus Christ.” Pressing hard onto the chalk board the priest drew it out like this…
“But Catholics believe you reach God through the Catholic church, which requires sacraments done in order to earn your way to God.”
A few years later the Holy Spirit would cement that diagram in his heart.
High school years were spent making great friends, playing sports, and studying as little as possible. He still swears by those priorities to this day.
Mediocre grades meant any chance of a university degree had to go through the junior college system. El Camino Junior College is one of the largest in the country. Almost 40k students take full or part time classes. In terms of sports, it’s a magnet for elite talent all across L.A.
After playing in the Lion’s All-Star game I invited myself onto the perennial championship Junior College football team. Coaches Bill Vincent, Jack Reilly, and Larry Petrill designed team concepts decades ahead of their peers. We threw all over the place, and the zone/blitz/ concepts were a peek into the future of college football.
A Rite of Passage
During training camp Defensive Coordinator Larry Petrill called me to the top of the “U” to lead team warm ups. Three days in a row Rick returned to the side and three days in a row Coach Petrill called me out by name. On the third day Coach P looked me in the eye and said, “Son, this is where you belong,” meaning at the top of the U. I think a lightning bolt might have ran through my body because after Coach P said that, something changed inside me. it was as if he walked me through a right of passage, or manly man ritual. It was an invitation and confirmation all in one, I didn’t understand it all, but I loved it. To this day I am forever grateful to those coaches.
As positive as those things were, deep inside though, trouble was brewing. I was getting better and better at covering sinful habits and self-destructive tendencies.
Jesus Tapped Me Out
Toward the end of college my folks marriage fell apart, and most lofty goals were unrealized. As a walk on at SDSU, I was soon walked off for having a bad attitude. Going from bad to worse, my grades tanked, and pouring kerosene on the dumpster fire, I ruined the one relationship I cared about. The death of a fraternity brother further unhinged ruined my moral compass, and I started binging heavily on drugs and alcohol, in such a secretive, almost nobody knew, but Jesus was watching.
After the death of my fraternity brother, I spent the better part of the next year trying to find out what life was all about, and was serious about answering the question, what happens when you die. I sought various religious leaders and academic philosophers, and either took a class, seminar, or group chat, I was relentless about what happens when you die. The question soon became the only things that mattered. The answers I got were bogus, non answers for sure. Those who I spoke to tried to give me comfort, I didn’t want comfort I wanted to know.
At the end of this quest, God sent the most interesting person into my life. Matt Booker was a campus missionary and walked into my fraternity house, speaking directly to me he said, “Jesus Christ speaks most accurately about eternal life.” I found the thought intriguing, and welcomed the chance to talk further.
To this day I’m not sure how I got there, but the week after Christmas I attended a Christian leadership conference for college students from all over the country. I was a duck out of water for sure. I ended up hitching a ride with a few good hearted Christians I had never met before. They were church brats, I was not, and they died a thousand deaths when I asked to play my Rick James cassette tunes all the way up to the conference. I have no idea who they are to this day, but treasure in heaven to them, I pushed hard on all their social boundaries and they loved me anyway.
At the conference I was blown away, thousands attended and I found myself greatly enjoying the quality of conversations and relationships I was engaging in, and for the first time I found a group serious about answering the question, what happens when you die, and what does that all mean.
One day in the middle of the conference I was asked to tag-a-long with a Kristy Kercheval and go out into the community and share Christ. Just for reference, I didn’t know Christ. Being ever forceful and rude I took the 4 Laws booklet that I had never read away from Kristy and said i would show her how to do it. Kristy had no idea what was coming. Knocking on the door of a downtown San Francisco apartment, a polite Asian woman invited us in and wanted to hear the gospel. I began to read the booklet out loud to this woman, and it was a first time for the two of us, I still sometimes think this might be the best approach.
The 4 Laws booklet ends with a question, which circle best represents your life, the Christ directed life or the self-directed life? The woman mentioned “the self-directed life”, and much to my surprise I agreed with her and said out loud, “ya me too, let’s read on.” Kristy Kercheval has a great sense of humor, her and her husband are friends to this day, and she couldn’t stop laughing.
My real turn came a few days later when Dr. Bill Bright stood up and asked everyone to give their life to Jesus. In a room full of people giving their lives to Jesus I strangely became became angry, and felt manipulated. But in a way difficult to describe, God spoke to heart, and when thousands had left, I stayed behind and got down on my knees at the very spot Dr. Bright was preaching from. God deeply convicted me of hypocrisy, so not knowing what to say to God, I prayed the following prayer. “Lord,” I said for the first time, “I am a hypocrite, and I will always be one unless you change me. If you can change me, I will go wherever you want me to go, and do whatever you want me to do, and say whatever you want me to say, but I am such a hypocrite I can’t keep the word of my prayer, only if you completely change me.”
And a moment later, I was never the same.